Monday, June 29, 2009

Efficiency, Effectiveness, and the Elements of Success

Big things are made up of little things.

You hear it all the time, and it is frequently true (though unfortunately, it's often used improperly by folks who don't really grasp the core of the statement).

Every successful effort, every successful activity, every successful project, is constructed from many other, smaller, successful elements.

These elements are nested, like Russian matryoshka dolls; one inside another, and inheriting properties, priorities, constraints, restrictions, and resources; from each of the elements above, and below it.

There is a hierarchy of missions, from great to small, and a hierarchy of elements within those missions; and it is absolutely necessary to understand this hierarchy, to be efficient, effective, and successful.

The hierarchy of missions, and the elements thereof, is can be described as the hierarchy of success.

This hierarchy is a simple way of describing that which is needed to succeed in any activity, and it consists of five elements.

The hierarchy of success is:
  1. Mission

  2. Goal

  3. Task

  4. Method

  5. Metrics
The order is critical. Mission is always at the top, metrics are always at the bottom, and you confuse the order of any of the elements at your peril.

Each of these elements applies to every individual piece, of every larger puzzle (or every smaller piece of the big picture).

So, for any fragmentary bit of something, there is a mission above it, and a mission below it (or a goal, or a task)... but they all feed up into the next effort above them, or push down below them; making up parts of the overarching effort, working together for success (at least, we hope).

Successful elements, aligned with the mission, achieving the goals, completing the tasks; make for successful efforts.

Of course, those are just words, not achievements. In order to turn words into successfully accomplished missions, there are also five overarching questions you must ask.

The five questions for success are:
  1. What is my mission, and how does that mission serve the larger mission(s) it is a part of?

  2. What are the goals I need to achieve to accomplish my mission, and what dependencies are there to achieving those goals?

  3. What are the tasks I need to complete to achieve my goals, and what dependencies are there to completing those tasks?

  4. What methods, tools, and resources will I use to complete my tasks, achieve my goals, and accomplish my mission; do I have them, and if not how do I get them?

  5. How are my methods helping to complete my tasks, achieve my goals, and accomplish both my immediate mission, and the higher level missions it supports. How are they not helping, or hindering those things. Are my methods the most efficient, and effective way to complete my tasks, achieve my goals and accomplish my mission. If not, why not, and what would be better.
You can see that each of these questions helps to define or refine an element of the hierarchy.

The problem arises when people confuse methods and tasks, with goals and missions; and especially when metrics have been put in place to measure efficiency at methods and tasks, instead of measuring effective progress towards goals and missions.

Perverse Incentives and Process Capture

One of the biggest problems I have within my organization... and in fact, in any large organization I've ever been in; is what I call "process capture".

As processes and methods are developed and mature, incentives are created to follow these processes. Metrics are developed to measure how efficiently one follows the process. Eventually this becomes a perverse incentive, wherein the process is confused with the goal.
  • It is critical that methods, not be confused with tasks
  • It is critical that tasks, not be confused with goals
  • It is critical that goals, not be confused with missions
Everyone intends to be successful. They intend to achieve their goals, and accomplish their mission... but seemingly few succeed, even when they have excellent methods, and all the tools and resources they need to do so.

The problem, is that everyone responds to their perceived incentives; which are frequently mis-perceived, or mis-defined.

Instead of an incentive to achieve a goal, an incentive is created to follow a process, or use a particular method. Metrics must then be created to support that incentive.

Because the incentive is for the process, and the metric is for the process, people follow their incentive. Because the incentive is designed to reward following the process, if the process doesn't achieve the goal perfectly, you stop making progress towards your goals; and you fail.

Then people sit around and wonder why they failed... after all they "followed the process perfectly, and we've got the reports to prove it".

They confused methods with goals, measured their success at using methods instead of their success at completing tasks and making progress towards goals and missions, and they created incentives to meet those improper metrics.

I've seen it in every organization, in every event... heck, in packing the car for a camping trip. You focus so hard on getting that first down, that you forget about making the touchdown.

It's hard enough when everyone has the same goals, missions, and incentives; but in complex efforts, and complex organizations, different people and groups have different missions, different, goals, and different incentives; and it is all to easy to lose sight of the mission of the organization, and how your mission fits into it.

Remember, people respond to their incentives; so to be successful, you must create incentives to achieve goals, and accomplish missions.

If a method doesn't achieve the goal, then you have to change the method. You can't simply measure how well you use your methods, you need to measure how efficiently and effectively you complete your tasks, and how your tasks help you make progress towards achieving your goals, and accomplishing your mission.

The solution here isn't to try to make perfect processes and methods, it's to create proper incentives. If you create incentives to achieve goals and missions rather than follow processes, people will develop processes that help them meet your goals, and succeed in your missions.

Metrics, Measurements, Analysis, Efficiency, and Effectiveness

Now, I've spoken a lot about metrics, but I haven't really defined what I mean by that.

First thing... when I say metrics, what I really mean is measurement and analysis. Metrics is just a shorthand used to say that... or at least it SHOULD be; but all too often, people and organizations implementing and using metrics don't really know or understand that.

When you are developing metrics, you need to account for both elements; and to do that you need to really understand the other four elements of success for any given effort. After all, you can't measure progress towards a goal you don't know or understand.

So, as I said, ask yourself the five questions. Once you've worked through all of those, you should have an understanding of what you need to measure.

Now, the tough part, analysis. When presented with data, what do you do with it.

Actually, analysis starts even before you have anything to measure, with the elements of the effort itself.

Start with your mission, and Analyze Down:
  • What goals are necessary to achieve to be successful in the mission?
  • What tasks are elements of each goal?
  • What methods are used to accomplish each task?
Then, start from the other side with your methods, and Analyze Up:
  • Do the methods accomplish the tasks
  • Do the tasks accomplish the goal
  • Do the goals accomplish the mission
Then you take each step (each method, each task, each goal), and you Analyze Sideways:
  • Is the step necessary
  • is it sufficient
  • is it efficient
  • is it effective
Then, when you being to work towards your goals, after every step, measure, and than re-analyze for all of the above. Iterate, revise, extend, improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Now those last two bits in the list; efficiency, and effectiveness... whooo that's the real issue.

Remember when I talked about process capture above? Well, the difference between efficient, and effective, is what process capture is all about.

Efficiency is not Effectiveness.

Though, to be fair, efficiency is PART of effectiveness; they are not equivalent. All too often, people design their metrics and incentives to reward efficiency, without really considering effectiveness, because they really don't understand the difference (or how to measure it), what it means, and why.

Efficiency, is a measure of how much work is accomplished, per unit of resources expended.

Efficiency IS important.

It is hard to be successful if you aren't efficient. It is hard to be effective if you aren't efficient.


It is impossible to be successful if you are not effective because:

Effectiveness is a measure of how much progress you make towards your goals, per unit of resources expended.

You can be the most efficient worker in the world. You can accomplish the most work, in the least amount of time, and with the least amount of effort, that anyone has ever seen. You could be an efficiency superman...

...Which won't help you if the work you are doing so efficiently is "walking south", and the goal is "Be 500 miles due north by next week".

Actually, what's worse is when your work IS making measurable progress towards the goal, but it's doing so in a much less effective way than you could or should be; which means you may be efficient at your method, but but both inefficient and ineffective at achieving your goals.

I say it's worse, because even with appropriate measurements, this can cause failure. Those measurements will show you making progress towards your goals, but they won't show how you are hindering your goals in other ways, or how much more effective you could be. The second component of a metric, the analysis, must be done; and that analysis includes both efficiency AND effectiveness.

Let's say that your goal is still "Be 500 miles north by next week", but instead of "walking south", you are very efficiently "walking northeast".

Yes, you will eventually achieve your goal of being 500 miles north, but it will take twice as long, expend twice as much effort, and you'll be 500 miles east of where you need to be.

That is the difference between efficiency, and effectiveness. That's what you need to measure, that's what you need to create incentives for, and that's what you need to work towards.

By all means, create incentives towards efficiency, but always make sure you have much greater incentives towards effectiveness.

Even deeper, make sure that you never create an incentive to sacrifice effectiveness at the expense of efficiency; but feel free to create incentives to sacrifice efficiency in a task or method in favor of effectiveness at achieving a goal, at any time.
  • Remember, mission, goal, task, method, metric; and always in that order.

  • Remember, do not confuse methods or tasks, with goals and missions.
  • Remember, metrics are comprised of both measurements, and analysis.
  • Remember, measure your progress, not your process.

  • Remember the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

  • Remember that people will follow their perceived incentives.

  • Remember that those incentives may be mis-designed, misapplied, or mis-perceived.

  • Remember that no matter what you do, or how, there will ALWAYS be consequences you didn't understand or anticipate
So, as in most things, success is simple in gross design, but simple doesn't mean easy. The devil, as they say, is in the details.